The Cleveland Browns will have their final tune-up for the regular season on Thursday when they take on the Chicago Bears. Unlike the previous three previews this preseason, we are not doing an injury report section. Instead, we’re going to jump into a bonus-sized ten things you should look for in the game from the Browns.
Ten Things to Look For
1. Talent Differential: Neither of these teams have had a good preseason as they enter the game with 0-3 records, but each coach is taking a different approach to the game. John Fox is going to stick strictly to evaluating his backups, while Hue Jackson still wants to get a significant look at the starters. I think it’s a bit pointless to play one series; you need at least a quarter’s worth of work to get into the game. The expectation should be that Cleveland’s first teamers will have their way with Chicago’s second teamers on both sides of the ball. If they don’t, it won’t be a good look heading into Week 1.
2. Tramon Williams is Safe: Given the amount of veteran players the Browns have parted ways with between the start of the offseason and the first round of cuts, it’s only natural to wonder if somebody like CB Tramon Williams is next. On Monday, Hue Jackson was asked if Williams could be next on the chopping block, but he was clear that Williams’ job is safe:
“Tramon? Oh yeah, Tramon is. Tramon, we are just waiting for him to get over his little thing that he has with his foot and we will get him back out there. I’m excited about him. He is a pro. I like what he has done, and obviously, we need to get him more opportunities out there on the field.”
In retrospect, I should have seen this coming. In the early portion of camp, one player on each side of the ball was receiving off days: Joe Thomas on offense and Williams on defense. That’s a sign of understood respect by Jackson. Now, he did lose his starting job to Jamar Taylor recently, but Hue doesn’t seem eager to part with the veteran.
3. Thursday’s Defensive Back Situation: I would expect CB Joe Haden and CB Jamar Taylor to both be in the starting lineup against the Chicago Bears. After that, though, opportunity remains for the players on the back end of the depth chart. CB Tramon Williams will probably miss the game with a toe injury, and CB Justin Gilbert won’t be cleared from the concussion protocol in time.
The big player to watch could be rookie CB Trey Caldwell. He had missed the first three preseason games with a hamstring injury, but returned to practice on Monday. He was pegged as a nickelback when he was drafted, and it just-so-happens the team recently waived CB K’Waun Williams and the other Williams is out. I remain a fan of CB Charles Gaines, but an impressive game by Caldwell could very well catapult him to the top nickelback spot for Week 1.
We’ll see if there are any changes at the safety position to start the game, particularly with rookie Derrick Kindred. I think Rahim Moore will still make the roster, but has had too inconsistent of a preseason to warrant a starting role.
4. Kruger’s Exit Shakes Up OLB Position : At the start of training camp, the Browns decided to move second-round pick Emmanuel Ogbah from outside linebacker to defensive end, hoping he could replace the just-injured Desmond Bryant. With the team cutting OLB Paul Kruger unexpectedly, the team has now switched Ogbah back to outside linebacker.
Heading into the final preseason game, four players are competing for two starting spots: Ogbah, Nate Orchard, Joe Schobert, and Cam Johnson. This preseason, Ogbah has probably had the biggest impact, but in more of a reserve role. Johnson has also had a few good moments with the second unit. Orchard has been running with the ones and has been...steady? Schobert has had the slowest start. All four players are young and can leave a lasting impression with one breakout game, though, so this Chicago game is big for them.
5. Hawkins vs. Gabriel: In my most recent roster projection, I predicted that both WR Andrew Hawkins and WR Taylor Gabriel would make the opening-day roster. However, many expect that only one of them will make it, and the competition could be closer than we think. Hawkins missed the majority of camp with a hamstring injury. Due to injuries to WR Josh Gordon and WR Corey Coleman, Gabriel had been with running with the first-teamers up until last week, when everyone else returned. He had a nice second half against the Buccaneers last week, logging six catches and nine targets. I personally prefer Hawkins, but if the team prefers one-or-the-other, youth could continue to be a prevailing factor.
6. Open Punting Competition: There is one position on the roster that is completely up-for-grabs: punter. After shipping veteran Andy Lee to the Carolina Panthers, the team received Kasey Redfern in return and then signed Michael Palardy. We don’t know much about either player, and there’s a good chance neither of them will even be the Week 1 punter if the team is intrigued by a punter who is cut by a team in the final cuts. You can be sure of one thing, though — if either punter sees a return man coming toward them, you’d better believe they are going to sacrifice their body to prevent a score.
7. Relatively Healthy Camp: Knock on wood, but all things considered, the Browns seem to be exceptionally healthy as the preseason comes to a close. There are no major injuries on offense, and besides Justin Gilbert’s concussion, everyone is good on the defensive side of the ball. People might look at the Teddy Bridgewater injury in Minnesota and say, “don’t push it — why even play the starters?” I might say that with Joe Thomas, but everyone else should be fair game. Injuries happen, unfortunately. I’d prefer the team get some more work in to build chemistry with each other, especially when you consider the roster turnover amidst another regime change.
8. The Rookie Receivers: Are we going to see the rookie receivers finally get involved this preseason? Corey Coleman didn’t catch a pass last week, so it’d be nice to see him with a couple of grabs. It’s the other three receivers who we need to see something from, though. Truth be told, one preseason performance probably isn’t going to change the organization’s preference of who sticks between Rashard Higgins, Jordan Payton, and Ricardo Louis. I think two of them will stay, while one of them will try to be kept on the practice squad. If there is a borderline decision to be made, it could be related to special teams value. That’s where Louis may win favor over Payton.
9. Murray’s Time to Shine: K Patrick Murray won the kicking job over K Travis Coons. I haven’t seen Murray miss during the preseason or camp in general, so let’s hope that continues heading into the regular season. It’d be super-awkward if Murray blew a pair of kicks in the same week he was finally handed the keys.
10. Running Back Competition: The Browns cut down on a lot of positions as they trimmed rosters to 75 players, but one of the positions they stuck with is running back, where there are six players: Isaiah Crowell, Duke Johnson, Terrell Watson, Raheem Mostert, Rajion Neal, and Jahwan Edwards. If Crowell and Johnson only play the first quarter, three running backs will be available the rest of the way (Mostert is out with an injury). That’s still a bit of a surplus, and it might also speak volumes that with that surplus, the team did not waive/injured Mostert. Will somebody break out for a big run, like Crowell did to make his mark as a rookie?
Our game thread on Dawgs By Nature will go live at 7:00 PM ET on Thursday, which is an hour before kickoff. Be sure to check in for the final preseason game of the year!